It grieves me to say it. It's well known that I'm a strong supporter of high speed rail, a fan of all things iron horse, but I have to say it: High Speed 2 is terrible. Terrible, terrible, terrible. It is to high speed rail what Heathrow is to air travel and what hospital food is to cuisine. Namely - it does the job but you don't need to be a genius to devise something better.
It thus comes as no surprise to me that the sixteen Conservative MPs whose constituencies it is set to slice through - four of them cabinet ministers and six more junior ministers - are angry. They're right to be angry, as are their constituents, particularly the owners of the 440 homes to be demolished to make way for the line. Looking at the route drawn up at huge taxpayer expense by HS2 Ltd you could be forgiven for thinking that the planners have simply drawn a wobbly line between two points, taking no account of the natural environment, existing infrastructure, homes or demand.
You'd also be forgiven for thinking that they have perhaps never travelled by train, as passenger convenience seems to be a low priority. You could even be as partisan as to suggest that the last Labour government who oversaw the planning deliberately targeted rural Conservative areas with their unimaginatively named controversy on wheels, though I of course would never do so... Whichever way you look at it however, HS2 - how I hate this trend of numbering rather than naming! - is in need of serious changes.
Part of the problem - and it's a problem with all parties sadly - is that politicians view railways as the answer to the wrong question. Maybe it's because gleaming new passenger trains in swish liveries and with plush seating and air conditioning are just so 'cool', the height of modernity, all sleek and stylish, and something they probably use themselves, but - with few exceptions - railways were not built for passengers. The railways were built for freight, freight was the mainstay of their income, and freight is the biggest opportunity for rail in the 21st Century. Railways are not the answer to long distance car use, they are the answer to road haulage.
It's not glamorous or photogenic, and it won't excite voters much, but if we're going to build a new railway network - and we must - the shipment of freight must be a bigger factor in design than high speed inter-city passenger travel between two distant places. Inter-city services in fact should come third in the list of design priorities after freight and commuters, both of which cause more strain on our transport infrastructure and are easier to crack as a business venture.
With this in mind it's not difficult to imagine a set of criteria from which to plot a route and to judge proposed routes. High Speed 2 should have maximum locations for road/rail interchanges, as used on the Channel Tunnel, allowing "roll on/off" freight; it should give the maximum number of towns access to the new line either through new stations or junctions with existing lines; it should minimise the route mileage constructed on green fields; and of course it must connect to High Speed 1 and Europe.
To quote a CGI meerkat, it's simples, which is why the proposed HS2 route so baffles me. Why does it not connect to HS1 at St Pancras? I know it's tempting to devise any reason to demolish the 1960s eyesore that is Euston Station - I will never forgive Macmillan for demolishing the original - but regeneration shouldn't trump good operations. Why has journey time between London and Birmingham been prioritised over reducing the journey time for more people by joining more towns to the line? Why has freight and the possibility of taking lorries off the roads been completely overlooked? And why does it slice through so much countryside?
I've tried to look positively on HS2, but I can't. It's a terrible plan for what should be a great railway. High Speed 2 can be a major improvement to our nation's transport infrastructure, but it should begin at St Pancras and run alongside the M1 and M6 - serving St Albans, Northampton, Coventry and Milton Keynes rather than just Birmingham - minimising environmental damage and allowing effective road/rail interchanges. To build any other route would be madness. Let us hope Phillip Hammond realises this.